Famous artist Fan Yang discusses how paintings can bring insight on societal issues throughout different eras

By Fan Yang Source:Global Times Published: 2017/3/29 16:38:39


Sha Wan Dong Da Tang Xie Sheng

I  need to watch CCTV News every day. It has been a habit of mine for years. As the saying goes, "A scholar does not step outside his gate, yet he knows the happenings under the sun."

I subscribe to the Beijing Evening News and the Beijing News. I scan them first before picking what I am interested in reading.

While it has become a luxury to carefully read words nowadays, a glance at the pictures in the newspapers suffices for understanding. Some people say we are in an era of reading pictures.

But when it comes down to it, describing pictures is the most original, instinctive and direct form of reading. It is nice to appreciate the people, horses, oxen, sheep, sun, gu shen (the Valley Spirit in English) and so on in ancient cliff paintings.

I am not sure what our ancestors were trying to convey, but I feel that they were trying to say something. Events in the olden days, such as hunting, harvest, reproduction, sacrifice, commemoration, war and peace, seem to be expressing themselves through pictures for people to ponder.

I have been to Guatai Mountain in Tianshui, Gansu Province. It is said to be the place where Fu Xi, one of the Three Sovereigns of ancient China, created the bagua or Eight Diagrams which are used in Taoist cosmology to represent the fundamental principles of reality.

Dun Huang, 53.5 cm x 59 cm


A Fu Han Sai Ma, 53.5 cm x 59 cm 


Tu Er Qi, 53.5 cm x 59 cm

I climbed the mountain and saw the "s" shaped Weihe River dividing the land into two parts, which is taijitu, a diagram in Chinese philosophy representing yin and yang. There are also pieces of land around that are like the images in the diagrams.

I think the diagrams are much more than plain diagrams, but rather a map of Fu Xi's territory that gives people insight into the politics, economy, military affairs, natural conditions, social customs, water conservancy and geographical environment of that period.

From then on, the images on ancient painted pottery, jade and bronzes had elements that could teach people right from wrong and how to pursue interests while avoiding risks. It makes sense that the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221BC-206BC) rebuilt the palaces of a state that was destroyed.

Astronomy, geography, fairy tales, ordinary people, wild animals, transportation, agriculture, fishing, iron-smelting, hunting, cooking, singing and dancing are also reflected  in the all-encompassing paintings of the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220). They are as vivid as words.

People attach great importance to pictures. For example, in the idiom "hetu luoshu," hetu, Eight Diagrams, is before luoshu, the mysterious writing on the back of turtles in ancient Chinese mythology. Also, in the Chinese phrase tushuguan (library in English), tu (pictures) is before shu (books). In the current era of reading pictures, people instinctively learn about the world in the same way that they used to in the past.

Later on, people began to draw what happened around them. For example, the painting Buniantu is about the big news that the Emperor Taizong of Tang (626-649) received an envoy from the Tibetan regime in ancient China. Lingyange gongchentu is about commending generals. Mianzhoutu is about military actions. Maqiutu is about sports. Guoguo furen chuyoutu is about the outing of a lady. Qingming shanghetu is about the crowded streets. Daoliantu is about life in the palace, and huolangtu is about merchants. Everything can be painted.

Ta Ji Ke Si Tan Gu Niang Neng Ge Shan Wu, 53.5 cm x 59 cm

Jing Xing Cang Yan Shan, 67 cm x 49.5 cm

In the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and the early period of the Republic of China (1912-1949), there was the Dianshizhai Pictorial that made pictures with news, customs, compradors, scholars, farmers, artisans, merchants, trains, ships, schools, students, smokers and so on. It was like the novels by Honoré de Balzac and displayed what it was like at that time. It is interesting to look at it nowadays.

In the Republic of China, Chen Hengke, a famous painter, lived in Beijing and drew a series of figure paintings that showed the lived experiences of ordinary people. Feng Zikai, a famous painter, also painted what happened around him, and audiences always find his paintings easy to relate to.

Now, when I read books and newspapers, I also draw what I am interested in as a type of picture notes. I remember that Zhaohua Xishi (Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk in English), a collection of essays by Lu Xun, a leading figure in modern Chinese literature, also contains the meaning of picking when fresh.

As people living in cities like the fruits brought from the fields by Grandma Liu, an elderly country rustic in Dream of the Red Chamber, one of the Four Great Classical Novels in Chinese literature, they also enjoy taking their kids to the countryside to pick strawberries and peaches. What attracts them is the feeling of freshness, the earthy fragrance and the fun in the process. They are happy to be able to do what they rarely do in daily life, and it seems that I also gain inexplicable happiness through reading newspapers and drawing what I learn.

Zhu Ling Dong Tian, 94.8 cm x 55.5 cm


2014 Li Jian Rou Huo Zhong Guo Dui Shou Jin, 35.7 cm x 45 cm

Every morning and night, I take a piece of newspaper and make myself a cup of tea before drawing a pile of pictures. When Nelson Mandela died, and the newspaper had a picture of him running for the presidency, I drew it to commemorate his great courage. I also drew a picture of the landing of Chang'e-3, the victory of Hengda Soccer Team when the team members celebrated with their coach Marcello Lippi, and Wu Mochou, a singer who has vivid expressions on the Voice of China, a Chinese reality TV singing competition. Sochi Winter Olympics also appeared in my paintings.

I have drawn Zhongguo sangao, which is about operas and Zhengyue shexi, which concerns the performance of grassroot stage theater groups from the countryside. I drew Zou Shiming, a boxer that I like, training. I also painted the cities in Ukraine.

Chu Fa, 54 cm x 59 cm

Last winter, I drew people skating near Qianhai Lake. Recently, smog hit the city, and I painted the runners who took part in the Undie Run through the Beijing Olympic Forest Park in the smog.

After painting so many pictures, I call them paintings of the society because they are about the people and what happens in the society.

Yang Jianguo, a friend of mine, saw my pictures and liked them. He said he would put them in the Oriental Art Magazine so that more people could see them.

People often call some paintings contemporary, modern and contemporary or post-modern. My paintings, like old wine in new bottles or new wine in old bottles, are also modern and contemporary.

I use the term "right at this moment, modern and contemporary" to refer to my paintings. Although they are no match for a live broadcast, they are like dawn blossoms plucked at dusk. The reason I put "right at this moment" before "modern and contemporary" is to stress here and now. People often say "cherish the moment." Isn't the moment my paintings?

Fan Yang

Introduction to the artist

Fan Yang was born in Hong Kong in January 1955.

His ancestral home is in Nantong, Jiangsu Province. Yang entered the Nantong Arts and Crafts Research Institute in 1972 and graduated from the Department of Fine Arts at Nanjing Normal University in 1982. He was a dean, professor and doctoral supervisor at the School of Fine Arts at Nanjing Normal University.

Now, he serves as the assistant dean of the Chinese Painting Department of the Chinese National Academy of Painting and supervises post-doctoral students at the academy. He is also a PhD supervisor at the Chinese Academy of Arts, dean of the Nanjing Painting and Calligraphy Academy, and director of the Jinling Art Museum. He was awarded the title of "Excellent Expert" by the Ministry of Culture and receives a special allowance from the State Council for his achievement in art. Yang was hired as the academician of the National Academy of Science and Art of the Republic of Uzbekistan in 2010 and the academician of the National Academy of Science and Art of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan in 2013. In 2014, he received the title of Jurade Knight in Saint-Emilion in France.

Newspaper headline: Imagery in history


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